Category Archives: Surface RT

Windows RT, Surface and Courier – What could have been

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Today’s announcement of Nokia Lumia 2520 made me happy briefly before I realized the inevitability – Microsoft has bought Nokia’s Lumia brand so once the acquisition goes through, either the Surface RT or the Lumia tablet would be canned. As a Surface RT owner and admirer of the Lumia brand it’s not a good scenario, but that’s not what this post is about, the thought of one of the products getting canned rekindled memories of the Courier. Microsoft’s parallel tablet OS experiment that lost out to Windows 8.

If you have never heard of the The Courier, you can see the concept here and read how it didn’t make it.

As you can see, it was an ‘innovative’ idea. But it lost out to Windows 8. At the time I didn’t know about Windows RT and was in general bought into the idea of continuing with the Windows lineage. But then months later, Microsoft Announced Windows RT and the Surface RT.

When Surface RT launched there was an OUTCRY from the tech bloggers as to it was ‘confusing’ because it was Windows that didn’t work with ‘old’ Windows apps. I am pretty sure these are all Apple/Google fanbois who use a Mac or Chromebook (pun intended) for their day to day work!. I bought an RT fully knowing what it is not and I am sure the ‘very few’ people who bought it, knew what they were doing.

But knowing what I knew, I was still surprised how much Windows baggage Windows RT contained and probably the biggest drawback was battery life. Jeff Atwood (of StackExchange fame) had a scathing take on it a few days back and I wrote about it myself in my Surface RT reviews. Much as we would have liked it Windows RT wasn’t a reboot but a re-compile with unnecessary pieces weeded out! But 18 years of an OS shows and it takes much longer to ‘weed out’ un-necessary gremlins. Would a fresh/ground up Courier OS for ARM tablets have been better? I am not saying Windows RT is not touch friendly, but it’s definitely not battery friendly and neither is it flying off the shelves after being bracketed as an iPad wannabe!!!

So after looking at Nokia’s apps for Photos etc. and thinking about the past few days of blogosphere I was thinking what if Surface RT was the Courier and Windows RT was Courier OS? Surface Pro could have been the productivity tablet, while Courier was the entertainment oriented branding! I am not even saying it should have been a split screen form-factor, a clean start, a different branding, hit battery life and some of the Courier features of course!!! Vendors could have used the Windows Phone 8 ecosystem to launch Tablets while the Courier would have been MS’ niche product.

Well, one can dream!!!

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Microsoft’s $900MM Debacle–Surface RT

Last night I heard Microsoft is taking a $900 Million charge on Surface RT this quarter. A billion in a otherwise very healthy quarter is a bit much for MS as well. Needless to say haters are rolling on the floor laughing with their “I told you so” comments!

As someone who totally loves my Surface RT I cannot help but defend my fondleslab, but I know too well that Microsoft bit off a lot more than it could chew with Windows 8. The $900 charge is a course correction to hopefully saner pricing levels, distribution strategy and inventory management.

Here’s to hope that Windows 8.1 will deliver what 8.0 failed. Initial results looks promising in the 8.1 Preview. Keeping fingers crossed!

Haters will hate but the show will go on!

Time for me to go build a few apps for my beloved RT!

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My wish list for @Windows RT 8.1

So Microsoft’s prodigal child the Surface tablet is spreading its wings and becoming available at more and more places around the world. Thanks to the tech journos, Apple Fanboys and Microsoft’s crazy ass pricing, Surface RT has got a very bad rep to start with. Well what’s done is done and I can’t help any of that. What I can do is share my experience of using my Surface RT and in non-exaggerated terms state it’s good and bad!

I got my RT early December last year so it’s been 6 months that I’ve had it. In this time I have used it extensively for blogging, browsing, watching videos, reviewing documents and writing documents. I have one unfinished experiment pending that I’ll blog about separately, else it would have been another nice thing to achieve on the RT. My 6yo has played on it a lot.

I’ll go feature wise and roll out the pros and cons as I go.

Battery Life

The Good: Awesomely good battery life for a device that you can use for some actual work! It can easily last you 8 continuous hours of type-a-thons on MS Word. That said, MS Word is a battery hog on the Surface. Mix of Word + other Windows 8 Apps increases the life a little more while Word + Videos (especially Flash videos) are detrimental to battery life. But all said and done, if you day requires you to use Word or Acrobat Reader you can safely walk around with the Surface RT with a nary thought about recharging. If you use it regularly for up to 8 hours a day you’ll have to charge it daily. If you use it on and off or in bursts it will last you up to three days.

On the flip side my first gen two and half year old iPad outlasts it by several days if standby mode. When running videos et al too iPad is still ahead.

Wish 1

Microsoft has just as much experience with OSes as anyone around. They gotta squeeze more out of the given battery with the given hardware. Windows RT is a clean break, unshackle it from old sins that is holding it back.

Form Factor and On Screen Keyboard

Many consider the wide 16:9 form factor suitable for viewing movies only. While that was the original intent there are a couple of side effects as a result:

Not so good: It is nearly useless for typing anything in landscape mode because the rather generous keyboard takes up most of the onscreen space. I didn’t measure it but from the image below we can assume about 45% of the screen is covered by the keyboard in landscape mode.

The good: Flip it to portrait mode and you have a perfectly Letter sized page (in Word) after the keyboard and it is a breeze to use. Though I have a touch cover keyboard this landscape mode has become my favorite mode for using Word or Acrobat. The form factor, it is pretty practical for doing serious work too.

I find the portrait layout great for reading as well. However there are plenty of minor quirks that spoils the fun of the form factor.

Quirk 1: At least twice my keyboard was stuck refusing to type the letter ‘u’. It would type ‘y’ and ‘I’ but not ‘u’. First time I attached the touch keyboard to do my work. Next time I changed mode to the numeric mode and then went back to letters mode and it started working.

Quirk 2: With the touch keyboard attached and folded back it often refuses to bring up the on screen keyboard. Minor irritant but hey you charged a super-premium for that keyboard and the device, I demand perfection. The almost works argument doesn’t apply. If I wanted almost works I would get an android at ½ the price.

Wish 2

  1. Fix the quirks, especially Quirk 2! it is reproducible rather easily.
  2. Find a way to make the on screen keyboard to be more useful in the landscape layout. There is plenty of space available find a better way to use it. Don’t make the shit excuse of using the keyboard instead, it’s not available for free, it is a rather costly accessory!!!

Windows 8 RT

Yes, you heard me right, believe it or not Windows by default gives it a sense of usability that just isn’t there on an iPad or the cheapo androids. Be it copying files from a pen drive, opening a command prompt and doing a ping, running remote desktop smoothly to remote into my Desktop Or my Raspberry Pi, all of these and more, just add to the usability of the device. In your head something screams out – it’s a computer not a toy!

But the crippled nature of Windows RT makes it frustrating to work with. It’s time to uncrippled it, set it free.

Wish 3

Oh there are so many things where do I start

  1. Office can’t use the modern File Picker and the old Windows Explorer doesn’t show Dropbox/SkyDrive folders. I can’t begin to explain how broken that is. Yes, SkyDrive works from inside Office, why doesn’t DropBox? Add folder locations only takes SkyDrive/SharePoint locations, expose that as an API for other services to hook in to. Make all File Pickers in Modern UI as a special folders like Libraries in the Desktop Explorer so that the workflow of using other cloud based storage services less broken. Then again Modern Office couldn’t come soon enough!!!
  2. Find a way to offer the security of the sandboxed folder to external folders or do whatever it takes to allow services like Dropbox to sync locally. I don’t know if they will ever build anything for WindowsRT but don’t make it more difficult.
  3. The cursed WinSxS folder and the disks space sink. It’s 2013 and if you haven’t figured out how to fix your dll hell I am not willing to pay the price for it with my limited disk space. Currently it is occupying 4 of my meagre 32 Gb disk space. Really unacceptable shit. I need to be able to clear this out, whether it is clearing out restore points or just bull dozing it.

Stability.

This deserves a special section of its own.

  1. I’ve had system crashes the render that result in hot shutdowns’ automatically. One moment I am using the Surface, next moment it’s crashed and shutdown. I’ve to power it back on. Using Skype is the most common thing I remember between each such crash.
  2. The wireless performance is buggy as hell. Even now, after three firmware updates more often than not wireless is broken specially the so called connected standby.
  3. Whenever my son uses his account to play games, I just can’t get back into my account and continue with things. The Desktop mode crashes and the menu bars are no longer visible. Here is what it ends up looking like. Only resolution is reboot.

 

All said and done, all these need to be fixed if you want to get over the derisive write-off that people associate with Windows and anything lean. Windows RT is your excuse for house cleaning. Please take out the old trash.

Surface Specific

The Touch Keyboard

It sucks. It need too much pressure, it does not provide any feedback while typing and worse it is unpredictable. Some keys need more pressure than other, so combined with its tiny form factor ensures you will never get used to flipping between a normal keyboard and this. Don’t be done in by the ‘needs few hours to get adjusted to’ propaganda if you can buy one for $110 spend the extra $20 and buy the type cover.

Wish 4

$130 for a frakking keyboard is shit. Make it $30-$50 for the type keyboard and we are talking. Take the touch keyboard off the market. Maybe have a $10 version that just works as a cover.

The Power Adapter

Wish 5

Needs to be three pronged with earth. When plugged in to some of the sockets at home the leakage current can be felt on the mag chassis.

Wish 6

The fancy mag connector is a piece of junk. Sometimes even though it is slotted in it doesn’t provide correct contacts for charging. One has to ensure the charging LED on the cable is lit.

Pricing

Well MS has already realized that its crazy ass pricing is not doing it any favors. The next generation needs to be 30% cheaper for any mass market appeal. Yes Android has started the race to the bottom (thanks HP) but Microsoft will do well to remember how it won the PC vs. Mac battle – by making PCs more available and affordable. Android is already using that book this time, we have to see if MS can rewrite the rules. For now they are neither available nor affordable. Playing the premium segment game comes with its risk and to play premium you gotta be damn near perfect. Windows RT is unfortunately not, though Surface RT is close.

Conclusion

Windows 8 RT is a far more useful OS than any of the other toy OSes out there, if MS really cares about the tablet form factor, it needs to up the ante in the above respects at least, to have decent traction with its RT tablets. The number of apps in the store be damned, there is a lot of house cleaning to do. If they want to write it off well, I’ll just move on with my loss.

How good is Office 2013’s Touch support?

Today I got into a debate with Peter Bright of Ars Technica on Twitter. Got a little bugged with his hyperbolic claims that Office 2013 only increases spacing on the ribbon in the name of enabling touch. Having used Word RT for significant amount of time in the past few months I found his claims childish. He retorted back with an F bomb asking how about a UI that doesn’t need a mouse. I replied saying I don’t need mouse for most of what I do. He came back with a bunch of challenges and this post is an attempt to publicly respond to them.

Before we get started a little bit of history on why the ribbon was introduced in Office 2007 in the first place. This is for regular readers who may end up here looking for Office 2013 features. Microsoft found that people were not aware of a boatload of existing features in Office because they were hidden behind some obscure menu/tool bar/options dialog. The ribbon was introduced to bring to fore these hidden features. Ribbon was supposed to be the way forward and dialogs were relegated to power user functions only.

After the initial hue and cry of who moved my cheese people found ways to deal with the ‘radical ribbon’. I learned to recognize the visual cues Office was throwing at me for every action and then following the cues. For example if you select an image office will highlight the format tab and give a red heading called Picture Tools letting you know subtly that image manipulation options are on that tab. These cues combined with my limited knowledge of Word Shortcuts I have managed to do whatever I wanted to do with it. Remember I don’t earn my living using Office/Word but still I am not a novice.

Before I go further, none of the dialogs in Office 2013 are touch optimized, and if you need advanced formatting that has no other shortcut available on the ribbon you are left at poking at option dialogs designed for mouse with your fingers. That said Office 2013 has significant intuitiveness built in to bring up required shortcuts on the ribbon based on my current context.

Also as far as I have seen Touch mode only makes the ribbon slightly bigger and the buttons a lot sparser making them easier touch targets.

Challenge 1

“Tell me what Touch mode does for the Options panels, or cell properties, or paragraph properties.”

Response

I haven’t had the need to invoke them given the options available in the context menu.

I can do my paragraph formatting in multiple ways that seems to be dependent on the type of word temple I am using. In this ‘Blog’ template I can do it by selecting the paragraph and doing a tap and hold to get the context menu that has my basic formatting shortcuts right there under the big honking touch friendly ‘Styles’ button.

If styles doesn’t work for you tap on the down arrow to get more options.

Selecting Font from that menu launches the following dialog. Now this is where things get old school where if you select Font or Paragraph you get this

Now depending on how dexterous your fingers are things can get a little testy. But you know what, if you tell me, that you adjust ligature of your font for every document and that you don’t have it defined as a style I say you don’t really know how to use Word.

BTW I do use the hyperlink dialog often and it’s given me no problems because all I do is paste the hyperlink in the Address box and tap OK.

Notice that the two vertical column of buttons are pretty well setup for touch even though there is no ‘optimization’ per se.

Again the flow is much more convenient if I were using the default Word template. There is a big honking paragraph button right on the ribbon’s Home tab. If you tell me you need more options that these 90% of the time you are just arguing for the heck of it.

Bottomline: You can get by with 80% of your stuff without looking at the un-optimized (for touch) dialogs and I have not needed them except for this writeup.

Challenge 2

“tell me how touch friendly adding an e-mail account is to Outlook.”

Response

I don’t have a clue because I am still skeptical about using Outlook. I don’t exactly like an app choking in its own cough of a couple of Gb of data. So I plead no contest.

Challenge 3

“you’re seriously pretending that the various dialog boxes are designed for touch? Even though they’re not changed?”

Response

Show me your use case that needs you to use these dialogs on a regular basis. Either you are too old school to figure out the ribbon or you are arguing for the heck of it. The ribbon was designed to take care of >80% of your editing needs and as I showed it does.

Office and Modern UI/Windows Store Apps

Office will surely be ported to the Modern UI sooner than later. As someone dabbling in Windows Store apps I have a firsthand idea of the challenges. In fact I have said this before, when Windows supports a Modern UI version of Office, it will be the showcase of how to do complex apps in Modern UI.

Till then there are other Office shortcomings to hate on like flaky Sky Drive connectivity and Sync, a not so great simultaneous edit functionality and others I can’t recall at the moment. But don’t BS that it not touch friendly. It has the best touch functionality for the complexity of the app. I think the only decent Modern UI app in comparison is CodeWriter which is not a productivity suite rather a decently done text editor. SketchBook, FreshPaint are all good apps filling niche requirements but none are in the same league as a productivity suite like Office 2013.

P.S. this entire article was written in Word RT on my Surface using the on screen keyboard. The screenshots were taken using the windows+reduce volume button and then pasted into Word and cropped all using the on screen touch UI.

P.P.S. I don’t pick fights with professional bloggers every day, I either ignore them or tell them what I feel over twitter. Today for some reason I was specially pissed, wonder if it’s got something to do with EU’s antitrust bitching. Looking forward to the day when Microsoft will be penalized for offering Bing as the default search engine if user selects IE as their browser. Maybe people need a banner to choose a search engine as well.

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Downloading Windows Store Apps after a busted Windows 8 Update

Reports indicate that Microsoft has recently busted the Windows 8 and Windows Store update process. I didn’t realize that was the case till I read this report by longtime MS watcher Mary Jo.

Well apparently my Surface’s update mechanism is completely borked. When I click on Check for updates from the control panel it hangs explorer and I have not been able to download Windows store apps for a while.

Possible Workaround

If you have a healthy Windows 8 machine and a broken one both using the same Microsoft Account to access the store you can do the following.

  1. Download the Store app you want on your healthy machine.
  2. On your broken machine start the Store app.
  3. Use context menu to visit ‘Your Apps’
  4. Select the app that you recently downloaded in step 1 and install it. If you don’t see the newly downloaded app in your list, give it a few minutes to refresh/sync and then try again.

YMMV – Your mileage may vary

I used this till yesterday and it was working but it seems to be busted now. I cannot see my Apps in the store at the moment.

[UPDATE]

Just rebooted the Surface and it seems I can see my Apps now. Not sure for how long.

Also it seems I can install new apps directly too. Damn I am confused now.

Microsoft you just lost your AutoUpdate privileges

Staying in regions with poor internet kind of preps you in certain ways. For example, I never use ‘web installers’ to install software. Prefer to download iso or exe files fully before initiating installs. I assumed Microsoft would take enough care to resume patch downloads correctly, but apparently some didn’t go well. So my AutoUpdate will now be dialed down to ‘Download and let me know’ when updates are available.

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